Harold Bloom's Live Canon

By Michelle Mairesse

     The European Enlightenment was the matrix of the American Revolution and of our national character, but not all European intellectual imports have been as felicitous. In this century, two expiring philosophical ideas from France, existentialism and deconstructionism, got a second wind in America. Now, college students are lapping up deconstructionism as avidly as their credulous parents swallowed existentialism. Combining incompatible Marxian and French republican ideals with the grandiose yet solipsistic ideas of French deconstructionists, multiculturalists on American college campuses are demanding that we jettison the literary canon and substitute for it a more politically correct one.

     But today's politically correct celebrities may be tomorrow's artistic nonentities. If you doubt it, compare the banal poster pieces of Third Reich artists with those of any condemned "decadent" painter or writer who fled Germany. Compare the boy-meets-tractor epics mass-produced by politically correct Soviet artists and writers with the astonishing compositions of such persecuted underground Russian poets as Anna Akhmatova or Osip Mandelshtam. Before we substitute politically correct instant masterpieces for the Western Canon, whether in the name of moral rectitude or in the name of political correctness, let's listen to wise counselors like Harold Bloom.

     In The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Bloom says, "We are destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences, in the name of social justice. Our institutions show bad faith in this: no quotas are imposed on brain surgeons or mathematicians. What has been devaluated is learning as such, as though erudition were irrelevant in the realms of judgment and misjudgment."

     He is not concerned with "the current debate between the right-wing defenders of the Canon, who wish to preserve it for its supposed (and nonexistent) moral values, and the academic-journalistic network I have dubbed the School of Resentment, who wish to overthrow the Canon in order to advance their supposed (and nonexistent) programs for social change."

     Artists' backgrounds and outlooks neither qualify nor disqualify them for inclusion in the Canon. What does qualify them, then? Aesthetic excellence, says the learned, impassioned defender of the Western Canon. Bloom seeks the sources of this excellence, illuminating his selections with deep and sometimes startling insights.

     From internal evidence, he speculates that Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers were written by a woman at King Solomon's court, the author whom nineteenth century scholars dubbed the Yahwist. This author, possibly Bathsheba, mother of Solomon, represents the Hebrew god of her story as all too human--eating, drinking, walking in the shade of the evening, having temper tantrums, mischief-making. What surely must be one of the strangest portraits of a god in history (even when softened by subsequent redactors), a jealous, vindictive, often demented deity, no longer seems strange to devotees of three great world religions. We are made to realize that ambivalence between the divine and the human is one of the author's "grand inventions, another mark of an originality so perpetual that we can scarcely recognize it, because the stories Bathsheba told have absorbed us."

     Strangeness, irony. Bloom returns to these qualities again and again.

     After declaring ironic storytelling about storytelling to be largely Boccaccio's invention, Bloom shows us how Chaucer, the comic ironist, transformed the design.

     "It may be that Chaucer's true literary parent was the Yahwist and his true child, Jane Austen. All three writers make their ironies their principal instruments for discovery or invention, by compelling readers to discover themselves precisely what it is that they have invented."

     The position of honor in the Canon belongs to Shakespeare. "If we could conceive of a universal canon, multicultural and multivalent, its one essential book would not be a scripture, whether Bible, Koran, or Eastern text, but rather Shakespeare, who is acted and read everywhere, in every language and circumstance."

     Shakespeare casts a very long shadow in Western literature. One way or another, all his successors in the Canon are his progeny. His magnitude and influence are unique. “Without Shakespeare, no canon, because without Shakespeare, no recognizable selves in us, whoever we are. We owe to Shakespeare not only our representation of cognition but much of our capacity for cognition.”

     Goethe admitted Shakespeare's superiority. Bloom tells us that it was lucky for Goethe that Shakespeare was English, because he could "absorb and imitate Shakespeare without crippling anxieties." (Shakespeare did provoke crippling anxieties in other authors). Bloom alludes to "the extraordinary strangeness that makes Faust the most grotesque masterpiece of Western poetry" and then circles that strange drama repeatedly, casually demonstrating how adept he is at winkling pearls out of unpromising shells, spurring us to reread those classics whose true opulence he has spread out before us.

     He reveals the keen intelligence that underlies Emily Dickinson's most audacious metaphors, the split between being and consciousness that is Kafka's theme, the debt of Freud to Shakespeare. He communicates his zest each time he holds up one of his twenty-six candidates for literary canonization. He encourages us to believe that the numinous awaits us, that insights, discoveries, and epiphanies are ours for the asking.

     We are not shocked when he asserts that the great writers of the Western Canon are subversive of all values, for Bloom believes in and demonstrates the singular virtue of great literature.

     The Canon exists so that we can encounter "authentic aesthetic power" and "aesthetic dignity." "The reception of aesthetic power enables us to learn how to talk to ourselves and how to endure ourselves. The true use of Shakespeare or of Cervantes, of Homer or of Dante, of Chaucer or of Rabelais, is to augment one's own growing inner self. Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen. The mind's dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one's own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one's confrontation with one's own mortality."

     The rest is silence.